Lumbees' Tribal Recognition Depends on Senate
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The Lumbee Indians, whose ancestors have lived in North Carolina for centuries, want the federal government to fully recognize them as a Native American tribe. The long-running dispute is now before Congress. More than 500 other tribes are already recognized and are eligible for government aid. Complicating the Lumbees' status are questions about their Indian heritage.
NPR's Adam Hochberg reports.
ADAM HOCHBERG: The small community of Pembroke, North Carolina, is the self-described hometown of the Lumbee Indians. In this rural city in one of the poorest parts of the state, the downtown stores sell feather art and traditional jewelry. Old Indian monuments serve as landmarks, and the Lumbee people gather each year to honor their culture.
Unidentified Man: We're ready to get started for our 15th annual event and we call upon our host drum to give us a grand entry.
(Soundbite of drum roll)
HOCHBERG: This month, Lumbees return to Pembroke for their yearly homecoming to celebrate a history that's complex and controversial.
(Soundbite of tribal chanting)
HOCHBERG: Lumbees consider themselves descendants of Native American tribes who lived in North Carolina centuries ago. But unlike Indians in more isolated parts of the country, the Lumbees say their ancestors assimilated early with people of European and African descent, learning English, practicing Christianity, and sometimes inter-marrying. Today, while Lumbees have a strong Native American identity, some historians question their connection to those tribes of the past and the federal government doesn't recognize them as a tribe of their own.
For years, Lumbee chairman Jimmy Goins has been trying to change the government's mind.
Mr. JIMMY GOINS (Tribal Chairman, Lumbee): We don't need permission from the government to call ourselves American Indians. We need validation from the United States to say we all are American Indians. That's what this fight is about. And now, a lot of our people think we're second class Indians, and the validation of United States government is going to put us back at the rightful place our people should always been at.
HOCHBERG: Fifty years ago, Congress conceded that Lumbees are Indians, but denied them full tribal recognition - an unusual gesture that keeps them in legal limbo. Goins says the issue is more than symbolic. With some 50,000 members, the Lumbees would become the largest federally recognized tribe on the East Coast, and would qualify for as much as $70 million a year in federal aid.
Mr. GOINS: Our people deserves health care just like anybody else. They deserve education just like anybody else. And, well, the highest rate of unemployment in North Carolina is right here. We got to have help.
HOCHBERG: This year, Goins is optimistic Congress will provide that help. The House, last month, passed legislation to fully recognize the Lumbees. The Senate could consider it this fall. But the measure has some outspoken opponents, including leaders of North Carolina's largest existing tribe, the eastern band of the Cherokee Indians who won their federal recognition in 1868.
Cherokee Chief Michell Hicks says the Lumbees have a dubious Indian birthright, with no language, land base or sovereign government of their own.
Mr. MICHELL HICKS (Chief, Cherokee Indian): The research that we've seen by professionals in this field are showing doubts that Indian descent, you know, really exist. You can't just say it. And you can't just create a tribe. I mean, there is no question about the Cherokee people. But with the Lumbee issue, you know, it's a different story.
HOCHBERG: Hicks worries Lumbee recognition would divert federal money from other tribes, and some lawmakers say the legislation would set a bad precedent. North Carolina Republican Walter Jones argued against the Lumbee bill in the House. And now he's urging his Senate counterparts to defeat it.
Representative WALTER JONES (Republican, North Carolina): This nation is at least $9 trillion in debt. And every time you add any Indian tribe, then they qualify for federal assistance. And we have at least 200 Indian groups throughout this country that might go to their congressman and say, look, you helped the Lumbee group down in North Carolina. Now, I want you to help me.
HOCHBERG: Jones supports legislation directing the Lumbees to seek recognition, not through Congress, but through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. An administrative process, he says, would allow more scrutiny of their ancestral claims. But back in Pembroke, the Lumbee people say they've been scrutinized enough.
As Eva Samson(ph) displayed Native American quilts at the homecoming, she said Lumbees are tired of waiting for recognition.
Ms. EVA SAMSON: We've been fighting for this for over 100 years. And we're still fighting for it. People are saying, well, who are you? You know, what are you? Well, I'm a Lumbee. And, you know, for the government to just say you're a Lumbee, that will mean a lot.
HOCHBERG: Lumbee leaders have agreed to one concession to try to satisfy their opponents. They say even if they're recognized, they'll stay out of the gambling business and won't build a casino in North Carolina to compete with one the Cherokees already have. Still, that promise has done little to silence their critics who continue to question whether the Lumbees have strong enough Indian ancestry to warrant federal recognition and federal funds.
Adam Hochberg, NPR News.
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